“The Ideal Wife” vs. “That Damn Donna Reed”

Class date: February 7, 2011

The Donna Reed Show depicts a stereotypical 1950s suburban nuclear family and “perfect” housewife.  The Donna Reed Show is a model representation of a conventional middle-class family and submissive women in an ethnically homogeneous environment.  The show takes place after WWII, during which the woman’s place is back in the home again.

The episode we viewed in class, “The Ideal Wife,” started out with Donna Stone fully put-together wearing a neatly ironed dress and pearls with the children’s bag lunches and school books in hand.  Throughout the episode, Donna’s “goody goody” housewife tendencies shine through.  She adjusts her own schedule of going to “Death of a Salesman” to go to her husband’s Gallbladder operation movie on Friday instead.

However Donna begins to rebel against her “sweet” tendencies when she realizes she is being taken advantage of.  This time, she demands that the dry cleaning service deliver her dress by evening.  Donna gradually becomes more and more resistant and “disobedient” when it comes to her typical housewife expectations and duties.  She starts to stand firm when it comes to requiring Jeff and Mary, the children, to fulfill their household duties and also does not blatantly hand out money or new clothes.

By the conclusion of the episode, Donna is back to her regular “ideal housewife” habits and ultimately gives the children and husband exactly what they each want.  Mary is once again treated as a “housewife in training” and Donna purchases her new cardigan sweaters.

Alex Stone recognizes that her behavior is back to normal and comments, “the revolution is over, we can all go back to our peaceful ways.”

In contrast to The Donna Reed Show, we also watched an episode of the Gilmore Girls titled “That Damn Donna Reed.”  The Gilmore Girls features a single working mother Lorelai and her daughter Rory.  The episode begins by Lorelai, Rory, and Rory’s boyfriend watching an episode of The Donna Reed Show and eating delivery pizza in front of the television.  The differences between Donna Stone and Lorelai are glaringly apparent even from the start of the episode…Donna would not have allowed such an informal dinner in front of the television!  The two women express disgust for the way women are portrayed in the show, but Rory’s boyfriend, Dean, sees it differently and remarks, “so what, she[Donna Reed] really liked cooking!”

Lorelai convinces Luke that the diner needs a new coat of paint.  During the painting process Lorelai suggests doing some stenciling on the walls:

Luke: “Does Martha Stewart do stenciling?”

Lorelai: “Yes, she does.”

Luke: “Then we’re not doing stenciling.”

Luke’s objection to stenciling, based on the fact that Martha Stewart does it is, represents the rejection of the modern “ideal housewife.”  Martha Stewart is a symbol of cooking, sewing, cleaning, and homemaking; everything that Donna Reed was too.

Later in the episode, Roary explicitly references Donna Stone when she dresses up as the “ideal housewife,” complete with high-heels and pearls, and cooks dinner for Dean.  Dean begins to recognize that not even his own mother is like Donna Reed.

Lorelai visits her parents and ends up telling them about Rory’s recent “dress-up” experience and sarcastically says, “We’ve decided to give up on that pesky Harvard dream and Rory will become a maid.”  Lorelai’s mother says, “That’s horrifying, why would you say something like that!”

Lorelai’s mothers’ reaction represents a complete change in the way women are viewed.  In Donna Reed’s era a woman’s place was in the home and even thinking about attending Harvard was simply not something a “good woman/wife” would do.

Throughout the two episodes, the representation of women clearly evolved from Donna Stone, a “sweet” homemaker mother to the outspoken women, Lorelai and Rory.  The Gilmore Girls illustrates the societal progression of women.  Lorelai is a single working mother that drinks a beer or two and orders pizza for dinner and Rory is a vocal young woman with many academic aspirations beyond cooking and cleaning for her future husband.

Current society’s representation/imitation of the 1950s housewife:

Representation of the Housewife in “Housekeeping Monthly”, May 1955: